WASHINGTON - California Democrat Nancy Pelosi may be trying to save the planet - but the rank and file in her party increasingly are just trying to save their political hides when it comes to gas prices as Republicans apply more and more rhetorical muscle.
But what looks like intraparty tension on the surface is part of an intentional strategy in which Pelosi takes the heat on energy policy, while behind the scenes she's encouraging vulnerable Democrats to express their independence if it helps them politically, according to Democratic aides on and off Capitol Hill.
Pelosi's gambit rests on one big assumption: that Democrats will own Washington after the election and will be able to craft a sweeping energy policy that is heavy on conservation and fuel alternatives while allowing for some new oil drilling. Democrats see no need to make major concessions on energy policy with a party poised to lose seats in both chambers in just three months - even if recess-averse Republicans continue to pound away on the issue.
"The reality is we will have a new president in three months, and what Bush and the Republicans are trying to do amounts to a land grab for the oil companies," said one senior House Democratic aide involved with party strategy. "I don't think we have to give in at all pre-election - we have many more options postelection."
It's a reality that Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) personally delivered to President Bush recently.
Rahall spent more than an hour last week talking to the president about energy. Bush spent the entire flight aboard Air Force One, and much of a subsequent limousine ride, grilling the West Virginia Democrat about legislative solutions to the high price of gasoline, Rahall said last week.
So, does the president think Congress can get anything done this year?
"No," Rahall replied in a short interview with Politico. "He's realistic about it."
Asked if Congress will produce a comprehensive energy bill in September before Congress adjourns again for elections, Rahall replied, "This year? No."
Instead, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources believes Democrats are all about 2009.
"We've laid the groundwork this year," Rahall said.
Democratic House aides say the energy agenda has been carefully gamed out in strategy sessions, and Pelosi always intended to take heat on gas prices while tacitly encouraging more vulnerable Democrats to publicly disagree with her and show their independence.
Freshman Democrats like Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania and Don Cazayoux of Louisiana have taken her up on the offer.
Altmire has said a drilling vote "will happen," while Cazayoux, hoping to hang on to his seat in a conservative Baton Rouge-area district, on Friday sent a letter to Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) demanding a vote on more domestic oil exploration.
"There will be a vote," said Altmire, who faces a rematch with former GOP Rep. Melissa Hart this fall in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
Indeed, Congress must vote before Sept. 30 to renew the annual moratorium; otherwise, it will lapse on its own, giving states the right to decide whether private companies can search for potential drilling sites three miles offshore. .
"My view is that if we have a vote, let's make it a rational policy," said Altmire, whose district includes viable coal and nuclear industries. "We can't let Republicans hold this issue hostage because of one vote."
Cazayoux, in his letter, says "the current debate seems to be bogged down in partisan one-upmanship."
To some extent, House Republicans seem to be playing right along with the strategy, taking Pelosi's name in vain dozens of times during their rebel House sessions over the past few days and making her the villain who won't allow oil drilling votes.
"It's grossly unfair to the Democrats who want a vote," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). "[Pelosi] needs to cut that out."
The Senate has also gone with a run-out-the-clock strategy, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) calling for a bipartisan energy summit but promising no major energy votes. Reid embraced the drilling and conservation proposals of the bipartisan Senate "Gang of 10" last week, but he made further commitment on the energy debate.
Reid, like Pelosi, is expecting to have a much stronger governing majority in the Senate next year, so he has little incentive to give in to Republicans on energy policy as long as he thinks it won't hurt Democrats.
Even as they face heat from constituents during the August break, Democrats say they aren't going to cave in to popular pressure.
"We feel pretty comfortable with where we are," said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), who is close to the Democratic leadership. "This is a not a new issue. This just didn't happen today. We've been working on this for months."
Democratic insiders said that Pelosi and other party leaders were "not rattled" by the GOP floor rebellion, and at this point, it's not clear if the Democrats will even pay a price on energy. State-level polling conducted by Democrats suggests that voters still view President Bush and the GOP as the incumbent power in Washington, and Democratic strategists believe any anti-incumbent wave would hurt Republicans more than Democrats.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, one of the leaders of the rogue GOP House session, said he realizes that Democrats are "in a four-corners stall right now," and admits that "it gets more challenging" for Republicans if they lose more seats in Congress.
Democrats are also comforted somewhat by the fact that crude oil prices have gone down more than 10 percent from their summer highs, and if the U.S. economy enters a recession, prices may fall further due to slackening demand.
"There is no crisis on our side of the aisle," a top House Democratic leadership aide said. "We have a plan, and we will stick to it."
John Bresnahan and Daniel Reilly contributed to this story
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